Nike’s sneaker bootlegging

March 21, 2023

There have been Nike knockoffs for decades, but Nike was arguably the first brand to do so. In 1980, they did it to oppose a US Customs tariff bill. Nike just last month released a special edition Air Force 1 in China celebrating the history of the Nike knockoff, The One Line.

The United States government and Nike went toe-to-toe over a $25 million tariff bill in 1980. Five years ago, Nike founder Phil Knight shed light on the incident in his book Shoe Dog, explaining how The One Line contested an obscure US Customs Code rule.

In Shoe Dog, Knight recounts that Nike was hit with a $25 million tariff bill brought by his competitors in the shoe and rubber business lobbying the government to bring Nike down. Typical of government confusion, the American Selling Price rules of 1922 stipulated import tariffs on a particular good should be calculated not based on the manufacturer’s price but on the price of a similar American-made product. The duty on benzidine chemicals, cherry stone clams, and athletic footwear with synthetic uppers could not be assessed on the factory cost, but rather on the American wholesale selling price.

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In Knight’s book, he writes, “we launched a new shoe, a running shoe with nylon uppers called One Line.” “It was a knockoff, dirt cheap, with a simple logo, and we manufactured it at Hayes’s ancient factory in Saco.” The price was just above cost. Customs officials would have to use this ‘competitor’ shoe as a new reference point in determining our import duties.”

Nike Oceania from 1982 and Nike One Line bootleg sneakers. Deffest image

That sounds a little hazy and complicated, doesn’t it?

With Nike’s Air Force 1 “NAI-KE,” which was released in China in November, it’s clear that Nike and a Chinese factory jointly launched production of The One Line 40 years ago.

The 1980 design was basically a one-to-one replica of the Nike Oceania runner. The design was all Nike, but without the branding. It appears that the only connection between Air Force 1 and modern culture is its popularity.

According to Nike, the AF1 shoe is the first test shoe developed jointly by Nike and a Chinese factory. “One step at a time.”

There is one, wide white stripe on the upper that ties the modern Air Force 1 to The One Line. Since it was a knockoff, the One Line removed Nike branding and used the white stripe instead. This white stripe is overlayed with a Swoosh on the Air Force 1. Gray suede on the modern-day Air Force 1 has some touches of blue, the original color of The One Line. NAI-KE is spelled out in Chinese characters on the heel of the AF1 under the slogan “Elevating Inner Peace Through Sports”.

There are two versions of the sneaker: Nike Oceania and Nike’s bootleg. Deffest image

It’s the real backstory of The One Line that Nike doesn’t tell buyers about the 2021 Air Force 1. This is one of Nike’s weirdest stories, and the shoes are some of its rarest. Sneaker site The Deffest actually owns a pair and wrote a detailed account of their history.

 In real estate terms, Nike’s move could be thought of as an inexpensive house in the neighborhood that lowers the prices of all the other houses nearby.

Here’s where things get a little murky. Although Knight outlined the plan in his book five years ago, he was short on details and at times, contradictory, as he freely admits in the book. According to Knight, Nike decided to make the shoes in its Exeter, New Hampshire, factory, which makes sense as part of its American Selling Price strategy. The One Line shoes have a “made in China” stamp, according to collectors who have run across samples. As a result, this latest Nike Air Force 1 release pays tribute to Chinese involvement.

Nike has failed to respond to Complex’s repeated requests over the last year for further clarification.

Nike’s One Line Air Force 1 from 2021. Nike image

It is certain, however, that the 1980 production was real. It was helpful. Although it is unclear where these blue nylon shoes with the white stripe were sold, Nike created a The One Line catalog.

According to Knight, The One Line sold “a couple thousand pairs” and reduced duties by two-thirds.

As Nike prepared to go public in 1980 after changing its name from Blue Ribbon Sports in 1971, Knight knew he needed to resolve his feud with the US Government before the IPO. As the two parties reached a $9 million agreement that resolved the tariff dispute, the full onslaught of The One Line was halted.

The One Line may have begun with Chinese samples-very few pairs have been seen in the wild 40 years later, and the ones with “made in China” are sample size 9-to get everything sorted out before the Exeter runs. The Chinese versions of The One Line and the Knight stories of Exeter production fit the American Selling Price requirements, which makes sense from a business perspective.

In any case, The One Line is a little-known, yet crucial part of Nike’s history. Nike now acknowledges The One Line with a modern-day Air Force 1. Oceania might be reborn next.

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